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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Michigan’s Growing Mute Swan Problem

By Bill Taylor
                                            Jim Occi, BugPics,

Mute swans are invasive European birds that were introduced into northern lower Michigan by private individuals in the early 1900s. They eventually spread across the State, and the DNR estimates that Michigan’s mute swan population increased three-fold during the past decade. Mute swans showed up on the southern Michigan lake that I lived on during this period, and we have the same problems and deeply divided reactions as numerous other Michigan communities.

Adult mute swans can be distinguished from Michigan’s native trumpeter and tundra swans by their bright orange bills (the native species have black bills). They also have wing spans up to eight feet and a regal appearance. However, the males are extremely aggressive and use their size to drive native waterfowl from the best nesting and feeding areas. They also occasionally kill these birds and regularly attack people in canoes, kayaks, and other small watercraft.

The people on my lake who do not want any mute swans harmed typically cite their beauty and good parenting habits. Conversely, the people who want to reduce or eliminate them talk about incidents where they killed ducklings or goslings or attacked people. Mute swans frequently appear calm and friendly, and one of the biggest influences on attitudes is whether a person has also observed their unpleasant side.

The DNR is concerned about the way that mute swans are displacing native waterfowl and hampering efforts to restore native species like trumpeter swans, loons, and black terns. As a result, it has established a goal of reducing Michigan’s estimated 15,500 mute swans to about 2,000 birds by the year 2030.

Mute swans clearly are a harmful invasive species, and conservation organizations like Michigan Audubon and Ducks Unlimited have publicly supported this reduction plan. However, many people still love them and complain loudly whenever any are eliminated.

I prepared this blog to give people who have some experience with mute swans an opportunity to share anecdotes and opinions on either side of the issue. Is the DNR’s reduction goal too tough, too lenient, or just about right? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Robin Redbreast

Photo by Ken Martin

Each spring and summer I watch Surabi, my cat, sit at the edge of the kitchen table and watch the birds in the yard.  As she watches the birds she will give a small meow, wiggle her backside and twitch her tail back and forth.  Occasionally she will allow me to sit next to her and pet her as she enjoys her favorite pastime, watching and drooling over the birds (that she can’t have). 
Each time I sit with her watching those birds I notice something.  I see cardinals, blue jays and many other types of birds, but one type of bird is more abundant than the others; the American Robin.  In fact, the American robin (Turdus migratorius) is one of the most common North American birds.  It is also our state bird. 

I had only known the robin to be our state bird and a rather common one until I looked up the American robin in The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John K. Terres.   Did you know that the robin was once a forest bird?  I didn’t.  Robins can still be found in forests but many have adapted to our suburban landscapes. 

Our robin redbreast is in the thrush (Turdidae) family.  There are 306 species of birds in the thrush family, including for example, the hermit thrush and bluebird.  The birds in the thrush family include some of our best known song birds.  The American robin is 9-11 inches long and has a wingspan of 14 ¾-16 ½ inches, making it the largest North American thrush.  Although large the robin only weighs between 64.8-84.2 grams. 

Robins eat earthworms, insects, fruit and bread, build their nests anywhere between the ground and the tops of trees and have been clocked flying up to 25 mph.  Here are some fun facts: in Redmond, Oregon an American robin in captivity is alive and flying at 17 years old.  In Amsterdam, New York an albino robin was rescued from the claws of a cat and lived for 5 years in captivity. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lack of Female Wolves on Isle Royale Lead To An Uncertain Future

            In 2008 there were four packs of wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior.  The newest study on the population of wolves on Isle Royale showed only one pack with 16 members.  The last time only one pack was found in the National Park was 40 years ago. 

Tery Spivey, USDA Forest Service,

             A few theories to why the wolf population has dwindled are: low populations of female wolves, inbreeding, heavy infestations of ticks on moose (the wolves’ prey). 


            The population of wolves on Isle Royale is mainly male.  There are just a couple of adult females and very few being born.  If more females were available a few of the male wolves could start their own pack.  Because the Isle Royale wolves are so remote there is a lot of inbreeding happening. In the 1990’s a wolf from Canada came to Isle Royale and sired offspring.  This helped, but not enough.  The idea of bringing in new wolves to increase the genetic diversity of the population has been considered by Rolf Peterson, a long-time researcher of the Isle Royale wolf population. 

            The moose on Isle Royale are suffering from a higher mortality rate and a lower reproduction rate because of a heavy infestation of ticks.  The lack of prey may be causing the lower birth rate or answer the question of how the number of packs went from four to one. 


            With all of this being said, the USFWS has just removed the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list.  The DNR is now in charge of managing the wolf populations.  According to their numbers, throughout the state, the wolf population at the end of 2011 was 687, claiming that there are 131 wolf packs in the U.P. alone. 

            De-listing wolves from the federal endangered species act would allow the people of Michigan to kill wolves that threaten cattle, dogs, and other domestic animals.  However, the threat has to be “immediate” and a person can’t target a wolf just because it was seen near animals in pastures or yards. 

            On January 27th wolves were de-listed from the federal endangered species act.  Can we manage the population?  Or will this make the gray wolf a game animal in the future?